Trust but Verify?

October in higher education has become FAFSA season. The federal financial-aid form for next year became available on October 1 and advocates and colleges push to get students to fill it out as soon as possible.

We’re going to spend some time this week on an aspect of the FAFSA that happens much later and gets a whole lot less attention — verification. It’s a step many of us know little about but millions of students and their colleges must complete when their federal aid application is flagged for review.

The Chronicle’s Eric Hoover, a couple years back, summed up why this bureaucratic step matters so much:

Verification, such a bland and bloodless word. Don’t be fooled. It’s really the story of a high-school senior with no ties to his parents who waited four months for the IRS to send the tax form he requested a dozen times. It’s the teenage mother who had to dig up receipts for what she had spent on her child. It’s the father with no internet service who used a library computer to try to get an old form from a tax service, but couldn’t afford the $40 fee. It’s the football player who couldn’t enroll at a community college because his mother refused to give him a tax transcript.

Those hurdles, which may seem like just paperwork to some of us, can lead poor students to melt away from the system entirely. But since 2017, the federal government has made significant changes to the process. And recently, the National College Attainment Network got data from the government that let it conduct the the first comprehensive look at how verification ends up affecting Pell Grants.

The answer is: after all of those extra checks for accuracy, most people’s grants aren’t affected at all.

Some good news:

  • The Education Department, using what it says is a more sophisticated algorithm, is selecting a lot fewer students for verification — down 400,000 or 15 percent in the most recent year.
  • The new system is also selecting a lot fewer of the poorest students — those who automatically have an expected family contribution of zero. Just 68,000 high-school seniors who fell in that category were selected for verification last year, a whopping 62 percent fall from the year before. As the NCAN experts say, “This decrease is important because it represents a move away from making students from the lowest-income families prove repeatedly that their families have a low-income.”

What else do we know now about verification, which remains mostly a black box for everyone in financial aid?

  • Overall 22 percent of the students who completed the FAFSA were selected for verification. (In contrast, NCAN emphasizes, the IRS audits just 0.5 percent of returns.)
  • More than 70 percent of the students who completed verification got exactly the same Pell Grant they started with.
  • For the poorest students, the number was even higher: 93 percent got the same Pell Grant.
  • On the other hand, 18 percent of students, after going through verification, saw their Pell Grant go down. (A smaller group saw it climb.) After all that, the government saved $430 million through verification.

Well, if it usually doesn’t change the numbers and the government still recovers about $430 million in Pell Grants, what’s the harm?

  • First, that represents a tiny portion of the $28 billion Pell Grant system. Moving around less than 1.5 percent of the pot doesn’t suggest that it’s rife with fraud.
  • Second, and more importantly, this process ends up pushing some poor students out of the financial-aid system all together. Figuring out exactly how many is tricky. The government says it may be 11 percent of the students selected for verification. NCAN’s estimates are much higher — more like 28 percent, which could suggest more than one million students are affected.

So that $430-million in savings? It’s certainly not nothing. In fact, it adds up to the equivalent of about 100,000 average Pell Grant awards. Then again, if the system causes 10 times as many to melt away from college, are we really coming out ahead?

— Scott Smallwood

+ Really do read Eric’s story on verification. It’s awesome. Also this one he wrote about those 2019 changes.

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Politics, Race, and College Openings

Colleges’ decisions about what to do this fall were more closely associated with the political structures of their state and how white their student bodies are than they were with the number of covid cases in their communities, according to this new research and policy brief.

Colleges were more likely to decide to return in person or less likely to go online if they:

  • Were in states with Republican governors
  • Were in states with a Republican-controlled legislature
  • Enrolled larger shares of white students

The study, by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, found “no discernible pattern” in the relationships between counties’ covid cases and colleges’ operational decisions “that allowed us to suggest these rates were an important part of the decision-making process.”

In fact, most colleges that had made decisions in June about re-opening stubbornly stuck with those decisions even as covid cases grew, says Daniel Collier, the researcher who led the study.

Every college sector, even private institutions, was subject to political pressures, the study found.

Collier, who’s a research associate at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said it’s natural for colleges of all kinds to do what they can to be closer to power. The boards, presidents, and alumni of private colleges, too, want to be in their state leaders’ “in groups” because that tends to translate into more favors and more positive attention.

Another factor linked to colleges’ decisions: the share of their undergraduates who are white. Colleges that enroll higher proportions of white students were less likely to go primarily online. The trends, the report concluded, “seem to suggest the existence of white identity pressures on institutional decisions.”

White people as a group have been less impacted by covid than other racial and ethnic groups, Collier says, both in terms of who has contracted it and how the pandemic has affected them financially.

They then might believe covid is not quite as dangerous. Combine that, Collier says, with many parents’ desire for their kids to have the college experience that they believe was promised them, then you could see how college leaders would perceive a business pressure to just bring students back.

— Sara Hebel

On the Podcast

We talked recently with Daniel Libit, the founder of The Intercollegiate, a media outlet focused on investigating and explaining college sports. Libit, who’s an Open Campus editorial advisor, invited us on his podcast to talk about why we’re doing this, how local reporting on higher ed matters, and what’s missing in the national conversation. Give it a listen here.


Faculty and Student Protestors Question UMPD Surveillance Efforts
Following a peaceful protest over the University of Miami’s COVID-19 response, a group of participants was emailed and brought into the dean of students office without initial explanation, leaving many wondering how they were identified. (

What Kamala Harris Learned About Power at Howard
As a college student, she wanted to have an impact. The answer she landed on — working inside institutions — set her on the path to the vice-presidential nomination. (

To Combat COVID, Fort Lewis College Embraces Navajo Principle of Kinship
The 3,300-student college so far has had 24 cases among students, faculty, and staff this fall. (

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